From start to finish, this was the World Cup's maddest day. First England bushwhacking the Wallabies, now New Zealand, the overwhelming favourites to end their 20-year search for the Webb Ellis Cup, dumped out by France. Yes, that would be the French hosts of the tournament, playing a quarter-final away in Wales.
Maybe New Zealand had it too easy in their pool. Whatever, France finished with their theme song – "We're on our way to paradise" – blaring over the public address system and if paradise is a semi-final against England in Paris, then that is what they have. They held on while New Zealand dominated, they harried and hassled and they eventually prevailed.
What a night. For the haka, France lined up on the halfway line, the All Blacks moved towards them and Leon MacDonald and Vincent Clerc, to name just two, ended up well within garlic-sniffing distance of each other.
It began with a bang of a worrying kind when Serge Betsen, the French flanker, had to be helped from the field wobbly-legged after he put in a front-on tackle on Joe Rokocoko. There were one or two wobbles for New Zealand too as their captain, the open-side Richie McCaw, was twice penalised for not rolling away at the tackle. This area of the great flanker's game came under much scrutiny before the World Cup but it had hardly attracted attention at all during it so far, with New Zealand romping through their Pool programme to the tune of 309 points in matches against Italy, Portugal, Scotland and Romania.
Damien Traille tried a drop goal from 30 metres out which went wide and both sides deployed the boot early on, not just France who had picked the 21-year-old fly-half Lionel Beauxis, together with Traille at full-back for just that purpose. So many contests with New Zealand open up like chess matches: probing and jousting and waiting for the first lapse in concentration, at which point the black jerseys – or in this case, the silver-grey with black flashes – make their strike.
It arrived soon enough. New Zealand were very close to a first try after 16 minutes when Ali Williams, that gazelle of a second-row forward, put both feet into touch at the left corner as he was cover-tackled by Clerc. Within 30 seconds of the drop-out, though, the All Blacks were in.
Luke McAlister, the inside centre, had made one superb break past Beauxis in an earlier passage of play and looked the part again when he took a lovely line off Dan Carter (pictured) to burst into the French 22. McAlister exchanged passes with Jerry Collins, the flanker showing icy-cool presence of mind with the line looming, and slid over near the posts. Carter converted for 10-0.
Either side of a Carter penalty on 30 minutes, Beauxis and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde had a penalty shot at goal and both missed. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy was pictured on the big screen raising an eyebrow. The French fans, who were outnumbered at a rough guess two or three to one in the near-capacity crowd, groaned rather more obviously.
Beauxis finally nailed a penalty, from 40 metres, just before half-time, when New Zealand pulled down a maul: 13-3. France had some isolated success with the driving maul but could build no momentum behind. That changed as the second half opened with the All Blacks on the defensive, first brilliantly, then cynically. Sitiveni Sivivatu had to race back to thwart Cédric Heymans in the chase to reach a hack by Elissalde. Then McAlister was sent to the sin-bin by Wayne Barnes, the English referee, for a blatant body-check on Yannick Jauzion.
On the day England put the northern hemisphere one-up in the battles of the last eight, France's confidence grew palpably. New Zealand had never before gone out of the World Cup before the quarter-finals. But with "Fields of Athenry" ringing around the Millennium Stadium from Irish fans who had said "what the hell" and taken up the seats they had reserved if their team, not the French, had got here as runners-up in Pool D, something crazy suddenly seemed possible.
Carter was seeing too little of the ball, and when the fly-half swatted a drop goal off target it was the cue for a quite brilliant French try on the counter-attack. Traille provided crucial impetus, and although Imanol Harinordoquy – the replacement for Betsen – was held, further waves of blue stretched New Zealand's 14 men and Thierry Dusautoir, the Toulouse open-side flanker, rounded it off with a sharp sprint. Beauxis's conversion put France level.
Carter, who had missed last weekend's final pool match, an 85-8 win over Romania, with an injured right calf, succumbed and limped off; his replacement, Nick Evans, only had a few minutes before he followed suit. Still New Zealand appeared to have stemmed the tide when they drove upfield for a try by Rodney So'oialo, their No 8, to lead 18-13.
But France roared back and, in tune with the madness of it all, Frédéric Michalak, the substitute fly-half, set up their second try with a dash down the left from Traille's pass moments after coming on. There were 70,000 hearts in mouths as Michalak paused and pirouetted in the tackle in the New Zealand 22, but his scoring pass inside to the supporting Jauzion was a secure one and Elissalde converted to put France ahead for the first time in the match with 12 minutes remaining.
To the backdrop of acacophonous racket which made you think Wales were here in the final itself, France held out. Elissalde raced into his own 22 to boot the ball out, knowing time was up, Traille in his wake pumping his fists in the air. The hosts of the French World Cup can keep running: they are going home again in style.
New Zealand: L MacDonald; J Rokocoko, M Muliaina, L McAlister, S Sivivatu; D Carter, B Kelleher; T Woodcock, A Oliver, C Hayman, K Robinson, A Williams, J Collins, R So'oialo, R McCaw (capt). Replacements: C Jack for Robinson, 49; N Evans for Carter, 56; B Leonard for Kelleher, 56; A Hore for Oliver, 56; C Masoe for Collins, 64; I Toeava for Evans, 71.
France: D Traille; V Clerc, D Marty, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; L Beauxis, J-B Elissalde; O Milloud, R Ibanez (capt), P de Villiers, F Pelous, J Thion, S Betsen, J Bonnaire, T Dusautoir. Replacements: I Harinordoquy for Betsen, 5; JB Poux for Milloud, 40; D Szarzewski for Ibanez, 52; S Chabal for Pelous, 52; F Michalak for Beauxis, 68; C Dominici for Heymans, 69.
Referee: W Barnes (England).Reuse content